The World’s your Oyster

50,000 children are educated at home or out of school. That’s the number of children in England who are not signed up to a school, who don’t go to school regularly, who don’t have to follow the national curriculum, and who don’t have to be tested regularly. This is all perfectly legal. Whilst an education for children aged 5-16 must be provided, that doesn’t have to be in a school. This is accepted, though it is not always checked or monitored.

So what happens to these children? Some are literally educated at home by the parents or carers, doing mainly what the adults think is best or what has been agreed between them and the children. This can include visits to local art galleries, museums and libraries, an outdoor education and general exploration of the world around them, as well as more standard study at home. For the more adventurous, however, education outside of school can involve travel, and if so, often for a year or more. There are families who set sail on boats or head off in camper vans, with the next lesson their next horizon. One such family travelled around the United Kingdom, before setting off to Europe. To provide an example of what they gained,  on one occasion they visited a wind-farm and used the knowledge gained to learn about physics, engineering and conservation. Another family travelled around the continent; as they went the children learned Mandarin and Spanish – the second and fourth most widely spoken languages in the world ( and incidentally, they also became proficient with the keyboard, the violin and the guitar ). In a world full of conflict and misunderstanding, they might argue, it’s important that young people grow up able to understand the languages huge numbers of people speak. And indeed, it is often a matter of debate in this country that the number of children who are growing up with the choice or will to do that is actively falling, lending this all the more credence.

Distance learning, whether it be more domestic or expansive, can see that young minds are liberated, that creativity and spontaneity are encouraged, and unorthodox skills and knowledge are valued. The degree to which the national curriculum is followed is allowed more flexibility. And when the time comes, children can ease their way back into the system for exams and maybe university entrance. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, others argue plenty. Home education is often seen as an indulgence by the parents / carers; there can be a suspicion that there is some kind of self-interest in their disapproval of their children’s schools, and that maybe they’re the ones who want the gap year. Still others argue that the single most important function of a school is to encourage socialisation with peers, and that the very independence from the family mainstream education develops is something these travellers may well not get.

We live in curious times – individual freedoms are said to be important. But many of our structures, schools among them, seem to stifle them. Whilst the debate over home education is unlikely to go away, statistics would suggest that taking its path can lead to achievements just as good as those attained via the mainstream. Do we not have the right to keep our options open, then?

State education is on the brink of crisis. According to the Teacher’s Review Body, and supported by independent research, the number of secondary pupils is predicted to rise by 17% between now and 2023. Yet at the same time there is a short-fall in the number of trainee teachers needed to fill present vacancies in a number of key subjects. Young graduates continue to be deterred from entering the profession by, amongst other things, a perceived lack of government support, whilst current trends also indicate a long-term decline in the number of women entering teaching. Experienced teachers, meanwhile, are taking early retirement, with many preferring to opt for part-time work as private tutors. This year will also see a significant reduction in school procurement budgets.

Parents have been quick to react to these changes. Since 2011, there has been a 65% increase in the number of children officially registered as home educated. Currently there are just over 36,000 children receiving out of school education, out of a total school population of 9 million – a small percentage, perhaps, but one that is on the increase, and these figures do not include fifth and sixth formers using distance learning materials out of school to study for their GCSE and A levels.

Traditionally, the reasons given by parents withdrawing their children from full-time education include family lifestyle, special needs, religious convictions, bullying and dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided by the local authority. Increasingly, a lack of specialist qualified teachers is placing a strain on fifth and sixth form provision, affecting languages, science, maths, business studies and IT. The failure to recruit these specialists means there is little scope for broadening the curriculum in ways required by industry and commerce. It may be said that some subjects, such as economics, are actually now being maintained via the use of distance learning.

These changes suggest a shift from the rigid “one fits all” model of education to a far more flexible system – a sort of halfway house, where some provision is provided wholly in school under the supervision of a teacher, whilst other subjects are “bought in” and worked on, out of school hours.

As schools struggle to cope in the present financial climate, distance learning and home tuition is likely to grow. It is, of course, not a universally popular phenomenon; many will argue that this is really the privatisation of education by the back door and therefore to be deplored. Detailed information about the quality and success of home education is, according to one authority, incomplete and in need of improvement. Obviously, if the system is not adequately policed, such concerns can be considered valid. However, if the emergent hybrid is well monitored, as it usually is, it could act as a novel way of maintaining subject provision, and further, of introducing new subjects, such as economics, computer programming or financial accounting into an increasingly arid sixth form provision.

Finally, it is also true to say that hard times such as these will always maintain and emphasise the need to stimulate initiative and change. For those who do not find a home in the mainstream system, home education should be an alternative well worth considering.

640px-Question_exclamation.svgThe obsession with exam results and statistics that comes around every year seems to me to be driven by the media; they do not need to report on it in the way that they do every year. It is always on the national news as well as the local news and most times I think to myself, ‘but this is not news.’ Unless there is a dramatic, and more importantly, unexpected change in the overall picture, then there is nothing to report.

My feelings as far as the media are concerned are that they like to look for someone to blame no matter what happens, and they appear disappointed if it is not a year to find culprits, but they will report anyway because next year they might be able to do some blaming. Even if there is a change for the better, they often seem to look for a negative if they can find one. I feel sorry for the students being exposed to this.

Of course, successive Governments and Ofsted have played a major part in creating this annual frenzy, through their punitive attitudes around performance and progress, but whether they change their approach or not, I feel that the media will carry on in the same way as it is now tradition.

Think on this: why don’t we hear the same stories about University students each year? Not important, not interesting? Perhaps it is not news.

PisatestIn an open letter published in The Guardian this month, academics from around the world called for an end to the PISA test. In the strongly-worded letter, they argued that the PISA test, which ranks the education systems of different countries around the world, should no longer be taken by students. Here’s a quick review of the test, its advantages and its critics, to help you form your own opinions on the matter.

1. What is the PISA test?

The PISA test is an examination which is taken by 15 year olds from 65 different countries across the world. The results from these tests, which consider a student’s abilities in maths, problem solving, reading and science, are collated and analysed, and this data is used to rank the education systems of the 65 participating countries. In this way, an educational league table is produced every three years, giving a snapshot of each country’s education system and allowing them all to see how they compares to their neighbours.

2. What are the benefits of the PISA test?

Education is important. The quality of education that a student receives has a huge impact on their final qualifications, on their job prospects, and often on their happiness as well. The quality of education experienced by students can also have a big impact on a country’s prospects and economy as well. It is vital that governments and policy makers keep a close eye on the quality of education that their students receive. Comparing their current performance in the PISA test with that of other countries, and that of their previous performances, is one such way to do this.

3. Are there any criticisms of the PISA test system?

Critics argue that the difficulty of the test cannot be standardised across all 65 countries. They argue that a question considered difficult by a child brought up in one culture might not be considered difficult for a child in another. The league tables, if this is the case, would be significantly flawed– like comparing the racing performance of two runners over a set distance, but with one running across flat, smooth terrain and the other running off-road up a mountain.

Furthermore, critics argue the fact that these tables are produced every three years encourages short-term fixes in education policy, intended to improve a country’s ranking in the next published table. It is exactly these short-term, quick-fix policies that are considered by teachers to be detrimental to their teaching practices, and therefore detrimental to the education of their students.

Another criticism of the league tables is the fact that they concentrate on such a small range of skills and subjects, without taking into account the student’s creative or cultural knowledge. This narrows the curriculum, again reducing the quality of education that a student receives.

4. What do teachers and pupils think of PISA?

An informal, unstatistical analysis of my colleagues’ opinions of PISA reveals a significant level of disinterest. Either they are unaware of the publication of the league tables, or they are dismissive of the importance of the results. For students, already heavily tested throughout their school careers, the prospect of an exam which has no real impact on their lives or future prospects is, unsurprisingly, an unattractive one. It seems that the PISA test is beneficial only to policy makers and governments – but not to the students whose very education it monitors.

200px-Question_exclamation.svgQuestion: Is there ever an “exceptional” time for children to have time off during term, and should there be any difference in the answer with regard to whether or not they are home schooled?

Although it pains me to say this, there is an exceptional time when children should be able to take time off school during term time. This is for one instance only: Health.

This could really be considered as compassionate grounds and some may say, a different criteria, but nevertheless, I feel it is the only time that absence from school for a holiday break should be allowed.

If a close family member finds themself with a life-changing, life-threatening or terminal illness and that opportunity to spend quality time together that will never be recaptured and cannot wait, then ‘yes’, a student should be allowed time off.

However, if a parent bleats that they cannot afford a family holiday during the school holidays, or that they cannot take time off at the same time as the student, the answer is a definite, ‘No’.  If this sounds harsh then so be it. Life can be harsh and compromises have to be made along life’s pathway. What sort of lessons are we teaching our offspring if we just ‘take’ what we want?  There are consequences to breaking the rules and we have to be aware of these and accept them if we overstep the mark – as one family currently in the media are experiencing.

As far as home schooling goes, my answer would be much the same except for another defining factor. That is, are the students working through term times as part of their study plan? I know I am! As their distance learning tutor I am making myself available 52 weeks a year for any contact they wish to make in order for them to get the best possible experience from home schooling. Therefore, if they are working the length of July, August and September and then take two weeks holiday in October, I consider this has been earned. But if they took the customary six weeks’ school summer holiday because siblings were off school and then took another two weeks in October, I would be unimpressed and very disappointed. Moreover, the parents would not, I imagine, suffer the vitriol of the LEA.

Home schooling is not an easy option and has to be well organised, motivated and requires commitment from all family members. That commitment usually requires more time in lessons, not less. As long as the student and parents are clear that home schooling is flexible but not a permit to do as they please without consequences, then that commitment will reap rewards. After all, LEA aside, the consequences are exam results!

 

 

 

One quarter of parents are considering investing in some form of home schooling over the summer holidays to ensure their children’s grades don’t slip, according to a recent survey. The poll of 1,000 primary school parents, carried out for an online tutoring company, revealed that a fifth of respondents already hire tutors to teach their children at home in order to help them be the “best in the class”.

This home tutoring is said to be an attempt to mitigate the “summer slide” – that is, the tendency for pupils’ grades to slip back over the long summer break. Research has shown that students fare less well in tests sat at the end of the summer holiday than they do in the same tests at the start of it.

Even if they were not planning to hire a tutor, the majority of parents said they planned to undertake some kind of educational activities with their children over the holiday, including reading books, helping with revision and investigating literacy and numeracy mobile apps.

However, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, cautioned parents not to forget the purpose of the summer holidays. “Children need a break from learning pressure and time to play – which is itself educational,” she said.

The number of children being home-schooled in the USA has risen by 75 per cent since 1999, a new report published in Education News has revealed. Four per cent of pupils in the USA are now studying at home, and the number of primary school children in home schooling is growing seven times faster than the number enrolling in state education.

Not only is home schooling taking off in the USA, but students are also performing better. The report states that on standardised exams, home-schooled pupils achieve “consistently high placement” – between the 65th and 89th percentile on average, compared with traditionally-educated pupils who average around the 50th percentile.

This success also seems to carry over when they leave home for college or university, attaining four-year degrees at higher rates than pupils in public and private schools – to the extent that they are actively recruited by Ivy League institutions. Home-schooled children also exhibit “no difference in achievement between sexes, income levels, or race/ethnicity”, according to Education News.

Commenting on the data, Dr Brian Ray of the USA’s National Home Education Research Institute said he expects “to observe a notable surge in the number of children being home-schooled in the next five to ten years”.

What initial conclusions about the future of GCSE exams can we draw from the mountain of documents which Michael Gove and the Department for Education released last week? And who will the winners and losers be if these proposals come to pass in their current form?

There is no doubt that the new exams will be harder and more “academic”. If not a return to the degree of difficulty posed by the old O-level exams, these new outline specifications match the difficulty and depth of the current IGCSE (International GCSE) specifications set by Edexcel and the Cambridge board. The message seems to have been: take the best of the current IGCSE specs and call it a GCSE instead.

The subject advisers seem to have taken this brief quite literally in most of the core subjects. It is perhaps most clearly seen in Mathematics, a subject in which the IGCSE specifications already require a number of skills that have been beyond the scope of the GCSE Maths syllabuses for 25 years but which are fundamental to AS level Maths. These include function notation, kinematic problems, set notation, rates of change and Venn diagrams, to name but a small sample of topics. There they are in the new drafts in bold print. This is IGCSE Maths by another name.

Most topics are not in bold print, implying that the boundary between what is now the GCSE Foundation and the current GCSE Higher levels is set to shift. Vectors, formerly to be found in the GCSE Higher level requirements, appear in plain text here, including the multiplication of vectors by a scalar. Some maths teachers may need to go on a refresher course to master the required skills!

Similar principles underlie the Science draft. Not only will the individual specifications require considerably more depth of study, as they do in today’s IGCSEs, but the Combined Science qualification will be the equivalent of two GCSEs, not one, just as it is today with IGCSE Science but not GCSE Science. The simple principle behind GCSE Science is to take one-third of the Biology specification, one-third of the Chemistry and one-third of the Physics, while IGCSE takes two-thirds of each of the respective individual subject specifications. The new proposals unashamedly mimic the IGCSE formula.

If this means that all candidates will now face a choice between tackling the new Double Science GCSE or leaving school without any formal recognition of their achievements in the sciences, there will be huge numbers of schoolchildren who fall in the latter category. While the old “everybody passes” philosophy of GCSE had its disadvantages, do we really want to stigmatise a whole generation as incapable of taking and passing the “simplest” of the new science specifications?

 

The Welsh government has today announced plans to require families in Wales to register home learners.

The home education community across the UK will be aware that there have been similar proposals, going back a number of years, but they have not (yet) come to anything, partly because of the concerted opposition of parents and almost everyone who is actively involved in home education.  So these proposals are certain to be opposed not just in Wales but across the rest of Britain.  If you wish to call upon the Welsh Assembly for Wales to abandon plans for a compulsory register for home-educated children as part of the draft Education (Wales) Bill, there is a petition you can sign here. If you feel strongly about this issue, as many of us do, I urge you to voice your opposition by all means possible.

In justifying his proposals, the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, claimed that the existing laws had shortcomings. Without a requirement for parents to notify councils “it is very difficult for local authorities to carry out their duties to ensure that children are receiving a suitable education,” he insisted.

Many local authorities throughout the UK have proved that it is not that difficult to provide effective safeguards – as long as appropriate procedures are in place and officials are sensitive to what is happening “on the ground”. It is true that some other authorities have done a very poor job and/or taken little interest in their responsibilities in this respect. But the failures of certain authorities should not be an excuse for imposing unnecessary controls across the country.

From our experience, the vast majority of home-educating families are doing an outstanding job in developing the citizens of tomorrow, either within a conventional educational programme, such as the ones that Oxford Home Schooling offers for the 11-18 age-group,  or along less conventional lines. The last thing that most such families want is unsympathetic and sceptical officials checking up on their every move or trying to persuade them that the children should go back into full-time education. They want to be trusted to make their own decisions and find solutions which are in the best interests of the children concerned.

Although Leighton Andrews insists that no such pressure will be applied, many home-educating families will suspect that this is the thin end of the wedge.  Once such registration is required, the worry is that home-visits will be scheduled, just to “check up” that a valid programme of learning is being followed, and so on.  If it were simply a case of registration, then fewer families would be concerned.

The most important point that the home-educating community would want to make, I think, is that home education is not the cause of social problems (quite the reverse), nor is it a symptom of social problems. In a tiny number of cases, children who are not at school have suffered neglect or abuse and this is, of course, hugely regrettable. But 99% of neglected children are at school and the fact that they are at school did not (or does not) prevent neglect or abuse from occurring, nor should it be any easier to keep abuse a secret (from a vigilant authority) because a child is not at school.

There is no evidence of even a single case where parents have been shown to have withdrawn their child from school in order to abuse that child or conceal the evidence of abuse. So all we have is a coincidental “connection” in a small number of historical cases, cases where local authorities had every opportunity to intervene more quickly than they in fact did.

The Welsh proposals imply that some sort of connection is suspected and that implied suspicion is what should be opposed most strongly. Home education must not be tarred with such a brush. Home educators are at the opposite end of the social spectrum from families where neglect occurs. A responsible plan for education within the home environment is the very opposite of neglectful – it is evidence of a deep concern for a child’s welfare and a commitment to bring out the full potential of your children. It is a phenomenon to be celebrated, not spied upon and suspected.

The Daily Telegraph’s front page story today carries the lurid headline: Cheating the System: how examiners tip off teachers. Parents and students are right to be worried that some teachers and their students are getting a head start.

Michael Gove has ordered an immediate enquiry but the government must take its fair share of the blame for the current mess because the exam boards are, and always have been, agents of government education policy.

In a statement issued last night (7 Dec 2011), the Education Secretary said: “Our exams system needs fundamental reform. The revelations confirm that the current system is discredited.

“I have asked Glenys Stacey [the chief executive of Ofqual] to investigate the specific concerns identified by the Telegraph, to examine every aspect of the exam boards’ conduct which gives rise to concern and to report back to me within two weeks with her conclusions and recommendations for further action.”

I have been to seminars conducted by Senior Examiners and there is no doubt that they transform teachers’ understanding of how exams and coursework are marked, so any teachers who do not attend such training sessions on a regular basis are in danger of putting their pupils at a significant disdvantage. But I have not encountered the kind of specific abuse cited by the Telegraph in which examiners advise teachers which topics are (or are not) going to turn up on specific exam papers.

The pressure is on examiners to provide “value for money” at such seminars and the more a teacher (or school) has paid, the greater the pressure on the board and the seminar-leader to go a little bit too far in terms of the advice they give. If teachers are paying as much as £230 a day as the Telegraph claims, the pressure is even greater.  If such presentations were widely publicised, free, and open to all (not just teachers at registered exam centres), it would help to ensure a level playing field for all concerned. Or the whole concept of such seminars could be scrapped and the exam boards could focus instead on dissiminating the necessary information and guidance through open-access websites rather than in one-to-one or face-to-face situations.

The exam boards will argue, with considerable justification, that such guidance is undoubtedly necessary because of the nature of exam-marking these days. Examiners have no flexibility at all in the marks they can offer, even in “fuzzy” subjects like English literature. There are no marks available for flair, initiative, insight or imagination, nor is wider reading in the subject effectively rewarded. The marks are awarded accoding to narrowly-defined and quasi-objective “assessment objectives”. A student’s chances are entirely linked to their teacher’s understanding of what those AOs are, and how to fulfil them. This is no simple matter, hence the seminar industry which the Telegraph has rightly scrutinised.

Alas, it is unlikely that we can now turn back the tide to a less legalistic age where examiners are trusted to judge the underlying understanding and communication skills of candidates rather than tick a series of boxes. But it will will be interesting to see what the government’s panic-driven enquiry throws up.

 

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